Vegetable Juice

I am the owner of the greatest crap. I’m sure your friend Martín has an ancient shark tooth in his parlor that was excavated somewhere like Hungary where they don’t have sharks anymore. I just read about whale fossils in Michigan, so it’s possible, maybe. That’s nice. He probably bought it on eBay, though, and it might even be made out of cement. I’m not talking about junk.

I mean feces.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, and my most recent stint, as of this writing (2014), was in Miyagi Prefecture. Miyagi is speckled with beautiful metropolitan cities, but they’re all Sendai. This capital of over one million souls boasts trees. It’s exactly like Tokyo, but with more trees (per capita, too. Get it?). It also doesn’t have most of the things Tokyo does, but it’s much, much smaller, and 220 miles north-northeast by north, where it really snows. People in Aomori (which is 220 miles north-northwest by north of Sendai) will laugh if you tell them it really snows in Miyagi.

I love Sendai completely, and I have absolutely nothing bad to say about such a wonderful sanctuary of beautiful women, zunda, clean air, rice fields, good life, nice people, cheap fish, open roads, and trees. Of course, I love Japan completely, and also have not a single complaint about such a magnificent haven of cultural tradition and karaoke.

My name is Steve, and I’m going to tell you about all the shit I have endured while living in Japan. Oh, how I hate Japan.

Of course, I have to start with Miyagi… and Sendai. I can’t remember a time I have ever thought to myself, “I really don’t like Sendai very much.” It really is a fine metropolis, and living there for years at a time would make someone really have to think hard about leaving. I know plenty of foreigners (or “aliens”) in Sendai, and many of them confess that they “could live here forever, man.”

I didn’t, of course, live there. I lived in Ishinomaki.

Ishinomaki is the second largest city in Miyagi, both in terms of population and not area. Having the second largest population in Miyagi is not difficult. I could probably do it if I had even a small financial incentive. The population of Sendai is, right now, per The Internet, listed at just under 1,060,000. I moved to Ishinomaki in 2009, and in 2010, there were about 165,000 people in the city. Now though, there are, sadly, far fewer. I’ll let you figure that one out.

The mayor of Ishinomaki is still Hiroshi Kameyama. I know. Is he even elected anymore, or does he just renew his own contract? (2016 Update: He’s still there.) Anyway, I have met Hiroshi a few times. He’s a good dude. I like him very much, on a deep personal level. We’ve only ever exchanged salutations, but I know we really connected, and I assume he feels the same.

The first time I met Hirosh, as I like to call him (Mayor Hirosh to his face), was in the late-summer of 2009 at a softball tournament for city employees. I found out when I arrived that I was Ogatsu’s ringer. Of the twenty or more teams, I was the only “outside person”. That’s not to say that being non-Japanese makes you a better athlete (have you ever watched Olympic gymnastics?), but I am a softball fanatic. I hit a couple home runs and had some defensive highlights. If they had named an MVP of that event, it could very well have been me.

Anyway, the tournament took place at Ishinomaki Senshu University, and lasted all day. I was out in the sun long enough that I began covering myself with blankets to avoid sunburn. My team was planning a “barbecue” after the event, and my co-workers were going to take me home when it was all over. The “barbecue” was at a park on the side of the road, and we ate oysters, octopus, and squid. I think we played tennis, but I was pretty drunk, so we might have just walked to the tennis courts. I don’t like seafood. Well, I like fish like salmon and halibut. Cod is good, too. I don’t like weird seafood like squid, octopus, and oysters. I thought “barbecue” meant grilled chicken and steaks. I didn’t eat much and the beers went straight to my head. I got sick on my first company outing in my new town. I didn’t ruin the party or anything. I just had to sit down with my head in my hands. They wanted to be protective of the new guy, so they almost made somebody stay with me that night, but it really wasn’t that bad. More of a headache than drunkenness.

My co-workers took me home and I slept for the rest of the weekend. That was one of my first good times in Ishinomaki, which has since become my second hometown. I love that city, and I will love it for the rest of my life. If I were to win the lottery, the first thing I’d do, is buy a house in The Ishi.

Oh, just for the record, I didn’t really live in Ishinomaki, per se. Technically, my address was in the city limits, but if I told someone in Sendai that I lived in Ishinomaki, I’d basically be lying. Ogatsu is a small fishing village, very far from the city center. Any time I wanted to go to Ishinomaki Station, I had to get in my car, make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything I’d need that day, stop by the convenience store for a bottle of water, and hit the road. It was only 20 or 30 miles from the town, but…

One Friday I finished work early, and was actually going to drive back to Ogatsu, shower, change my clothes, and then go all the way into town. Three of my nine schools were over half-way to the main population center, so sometimes I got to pretend to be a city boy. On this particular day, I was working at one of these schools, but I must have forgotten something at the house. The road from the city to my town, Ogatsu, was a wide-open country highway. It runs parallel to the Kitakami River, between two ranges of small mountains, north toward the sea. There were rice fields, farm houses, a dairy, a lumber yard, small villages, vending machines, boat ramps, people who would be drinking juleps on a porch swing if they were in America, and on that day, a “mouse trap”.

The speed limit on this wide-open country route was fifty. Those are kilometers though. Fifty kilometers is thirty-one miles. Thirty-one miles per hour won’t get you a speeding ticket on the housing tract street where I grew up in residential Irvine, California. Thirty-one will get you the horn on almost any street in California, but in Miyagi, on a road with a “mouse trap”, thirty-one is pushing it. I was clocked at seventy-three kilometers per hour, trying to be patient. That’s about forty-five, American. You plop that same road down in rural California, and forty-five gets you killed, rear-ended by a semi-truck who never even saw you. That’s why Ogatsu felt so far from downtown. It was only twenty miles away, but took nearly an hour to reach by car.

I was driving home from school, just going to change my clothes. To drive fifty, I would have needed to rest my foot on the break, instead of resting on the gas like any normal person does on any normal road. Every time I drive that road with a friend, I demonstrate how slowly I’d need to go to avoid getting that ticket, and they just shake their heads and laugh. This one Friday, I noticed a black box on the side of the road, no bigger than a microwave oven. It caught my eye, and I thought, “I don’t think I liked that thing.”

About one kilometer (.62 miles) down the road, I saw an orange shape. It could have been an abused horse or a traffic officer standing in the road, holding out a vibrant banner, telling me to pull off so they could write me a ticket. It was the former.

Just kidding; it was a cop. As I sat in the back of the police van, waiting for the officer to process my international driving permit from the Auto Club, I bit my tongue and listened to his partner lecture me on the dangers of “speeding” and “reckless driving”. I found out later, from the police officer in my village, that if I had been going just slightly faster, I could have lost my permit, and the opportunity to convert it to a Japanese license… permanently. As it were, I was fined the equivalent of $150, and I decided to just go home and forget my plans in town. That was the first of two tickets I got in Japan. The second one was Cameron’s fault, though he has done enough for me in life that I can’t hold a grudge.

At the end of my conversation with the jerk police officers, the one who processed my license, apparently deciding that the professional transaction ended when I took the citation from him, began asking me personal questions. He was excited to meet the new teacher in town, and started speculating about whether or not I taught the children of any of his friends. I was cordial while sporting a hardhearted frown, and I nodded my head, answering in single syllables. After dismissing me with a bow, he called out as I got to my car. He shouted, “Sensei! Please do your best in school!” After hearing his unintentional condescension, I hurled my papers through my window, got in my car, nearly pierced the chassis of the ’95 Trueno with my seatbelt, almost crushed its frame with the door, and drove off. I slammed my sunglasses onto my face as I drove by his waving, smiling ass, and I’m pretty sure the shockwave knocked him off his feet.

That’s not the point, though. This story is about poo.

One day there was a big earthquake and I had to flee from a tsunami, so I was on top of a hill. I had gone out that day wearing jeans, a fake leather jacket, and Converse sneakers. You may remember that it was March 11th, 2011. Early March is very cold in Miyagi. I sat on top of my hill like a bogan at the ball, under-dressed for the occasion, trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do.

Luckily, I had filled my gas tank that morning while driving to Ogatsu, two or three hours before Mother Nature dragged her mouse around the perimeter of the scallop-fishing, seawater-smelling, problem-free, storybook hamlet and pressed delete. So as I sat on top of that hill, I had the luxury of idling my car so I could run the heater. I still didn’t want to waste too much gas, though (quite prescient as the entirety of northern Japan would be rationing for weeks), so I ran it until I got warm, turned it off until I couldn’t feel my toes, then ran it again to thaw, repeating that cycle for four or five hours. I did spend part of that time outside, watching the city to see what was happening. It was snowing pretty hard, covering us with soft white blankets most of that time, and we couldn’t make any phone calls, so we were basically just chatting.

Up on that hill, I met the mother and younger sister of a girl named Kuremi, on whom I had previously had a desperate crush. Kuremi hates me, even now, for no apparent reason. (2016 Update: She’s married and does not hate me.) With them and a bunch of other strangers, I just watched. We talked. I asked them if “you think a tsunami can make it all the way up here?” They thought we were fine.

The vast majority of that time was spent by everyone trying to stay warm in their cars. It was thermals and mittens weather, but most everyone had been watching TV at home, or, like me, just going out for some coffee. Nobody expected to be on top of a hill for eight hours, out in the snow. I sure as hell didn’t expect to not go home for a week. Thus, we were not prepared.

I didn’t have any food or water in my car. My feet were terribly cold, and I remembered that my P.E. shoes were in the back of the Mitsubishi EK Wagon, 2003. They were slightly thicker and warmer than my Chucks, so I put them on. I also got hungry and thirsty, and there was a fellow I’d spent some time getting to know who seemed to be in a similar dilemma. I asked him if he wanted anything from the convenience store, and he asked if he could just go with me.

It was getting dark, and we went down the hill. We drove to the mall to see if it was open, and, of course, it was pitch black with nobody there. We drove to a few convenience stores before finding one with people. It was at this point that my stomach started pinging, and not out of hunger.

In the shop, there were maybe fifty scared people waiting in a single file line. There were no lights, and only three or four employees (heroes). The shelves had blank CDs for data recording, bleach, and a few other things. The water was gone. There was not a bottle of anything hydrating in the store. Imagine going into a gas station’s mini-mart, dying of thirst, and finding nothing that could help. It was just like that except this place wasn’t distributing gas. I was, though.

We bought Pringles and vegetable juice. I had one sip of the vegetable juice before I decided to just suck on snow. The streetlights were off, and it was getting a lot darker. There was a very strong aftershock while we waited in the store. People grabbed onto things, and children howled. You have to remember, when I say “very strong aftershock,” I mean an earthquake measuring higher than seven on the Richter Scale, and just off the coast of Ishinomaki. Shit was falling off shelves, and the people weren’t grabbing onto things for show. A light fixture fell to the floor while we stood in line. An earthquake in California that shook as hard as the aftershocks that night in Ishinomaki would have been on the news for weeks. It would probably have its own Wikipedia page.

The employees were running all-cash registers with handheld calculators, by flashlight, and there was one “runner” calling out prices across the store by looking at the labels on the shelves. The man I drove down with made some comment about how he was sorry that they (the Japanese) weren’t better prepared. He was apologizing to me. I told him something like, “Bro, if we were in America right now, there sure as shit wouldn’t be people waiting in line to pay for no G.D. vegetable juice.”

When we got back on top of the hill, my crap cramps were starting to affect my mood and my actions. I had my chips, so I thought I was fine. I had also bought paper towels at the convenience store. When you’re in that sort of situation, thoughts like, “Oh, damn! I can’t believe there are still paper towels,” run through your head, and in the basket they go.

Back on the hill, just before I would have turned the car back on to get warm, I stepped out. I walked around and asked my vegetable juice companion how he was doing. He told me he was worried about his wife. He didn’t live in Ishinomaki. He was only there on a day-trip for work. His wife was in Natori. Natori got pummeled, I’d find out later. (2016 Correction: Natori got fucked.) I tried to get in touch with him a month or so after that, but it didn’t work. I know he was okay, but I never found out about his wife.

I got back into my car, and I reclined my seat to get some rest. I turned on the engine to try to avoid frostbite. I may not have emphasized the shaking enough yet. The aftershock we felt in the convenience store was huge, and there were some other big ones. I wrote an essay for an E-book that my college professor Jeff Kingston was producing for Foreign Policy Magazine. In it, I wrote, “There were so many aftershocks that I could not tell for days whether or not the Earth was shaking at any given point.” That is true. To this day, I still feel earthquakes that aren’t occurring. I think that’s post-traumatic stress. I might even have the full disorder.

While standing on the hill with strangers, I noticed things like a residential area and junior high school being unusually reflective of light. We quickly figured out that the ocean had filled the streets. We noticed that the sky behind Hiyoriyama, my neighborhood, was red. We realized as the sun was setting that soon, we would have no visibility of any of the city. It turned out that it was something like the whole of northern Japan that had gone dark. We knew nothing at the time.

The redness of the sky was the refraction of firelight on smoke and snow. The elementary school around the corner from my apartment was burning to a skeleton. That was tough luck, because it was also being battered by the sea. The people who evacuated to that school had to wait for a break in the tide (as the building in which they waited was burning) to leave and rush through mud and debris to the top of the nearby hill. A lot of them were kids, and many of them were watching their homes, cars, and neighbors swept out to sea. All I knew was what I heard on the radio, but that was about as encouraging and reassuring as the people who work Immigration at LAX. The voice from my car speakers was just counting how many people were on roofs in different cities, and giving locations in the hope that guys with helicopters were listening. It was really depressing. I learned a lot of vocabulary words. “Epicenter.” “Stranded.” “Evacuate.” “Victim.” “Flee.” “Shelter.”

My emotional sickness from the information I was hearing coincided perfectly with the sickness I felt in my stomach. I won’t tell you that I wasn’t drinking the night before (that Friday, March 11th, was my first day of spring break, and I had celebrated on Thursday night with my first-ever bottle of Jinro), so I can’t claim that I don’t know why my belly was acting up. McDonald’s for lunch may have played a role as well. Stress too? Here’s something I didn’t include in my contribution to Professor Kingston’s publication:

I could no longer take it, and I got out of the car. It was totally dark at that point, and I was freezing cold. I don’t mean pretty dark and kind of cold. I mean that the power grid would be offline for days and I had to keep my fingers in my mouth because I didn’t have gloves. I locked my car with the remote, and was immediately shivering. I walked toward the homes on the hill, hoping to knock on a door, give my sales pitch, and win the contract to paint their toilet. I felt pretty guilty, because that happens when you’re white in Japan and you knock on someone’s door hoping to take a shit in their house. I also felt guilty because I was about to explode, and the power was out. So were some of the waterworks. Flushing capabilities were offline for a lot of people with those high-tech toilets Japan is famous for. That made for some other funny poo stories, but none quite like this one. I thought better of it and decided that I’d pee on a tree, and see if that helped ease the pressure.

Nope.

I walked back toward the dark homes, using my dying cell phone as a light. I only knocked on one door before coming to the conclusion that, “Steve, this is not gonna happen, kid.” I walked back to my car and grabbed some of the paper towels. I put a few squares in my pocket and treaded in the opposite direction of my new neighbors. I think you can conclude that my intentions were not pure.

I was in the trees. I could feel, in my bones, the seawater sloshing around my city, stealing things away with it… things that belonged to me and my friends. I could faintly see the crimson light of my neighborhood burning in the distance. It was twenty degrees Fahrenheit, the ground was shaking, and I couldn’t make out what was ten feet in front of me. All I knew was that if I didn’t unfasten my belt, I was not going to be pleasant company for a while. Turns out, I would have smelled like festering fecal tar for a week.

So during one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, after my cell phone service had shut off, with my friends and family worried sick about me, I wandered into the woods. I found myself out of sight of the other cars on the hill. I was in the forest. The ground was covered in snow, and it was getting my socks wet. I squatted. I took my shaking, shivering hands to the button of my jeans, and opened it all up.

Luckily, hole-in-the-ground toilets are common in Japan, so I was practiced. Out of sight of any other human, surrounded by trees, in a type of darkness you don’t see anymore these days, while being snowed upon, trying to keep my balance as the earth shook, while my apartment could very well have been burning to the ground behind me, as a tsunami was swallowing my city, while a nuclear power plant was melting down seventy miles to the south, and I was starting to feel pretty dehydrated, I let go.

Now, I would have remembered this dump if it had taken place at my parents’ house at the end of the front hall. This was something that had been hurting for a couple hours, and by the time I got to my spot in the woods, felt like a knife in my abdomen. I seriously almost had to do this in front of people. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill poop. I exploded. It was audible diarrhea. It cackled at me, and probably melted the snow on impact. If I had woken up and had this in the morning on a normal day, I might have called in sick for work so I could sit around and contemplate it. I thought I might have gotten on my shoes. The previous sentence has no typographical errors or missing words.

It was the best crap I can remember, regardless of the situation. Add the earthquake-tsunami-fire-snowstorm-homelessness-paper towel-vegetable juice-wet socks-darkness-foreign-forest situation on top of that, and I defy you to ever in your life find someone who could possibly even tell a fictional story of a more incredible number two than the one I had on Shirasagi-dai on March 11th, in 2011. You won’t.

You won’t.

The second time I met Mayor Hirosh was at my high school’s graduation.

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5 thoughts on “Vegetable Juice

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